Written by Dave Page
During 1945, the fighting in the Pacific was quickly approaching the main Japanese islands. One of these islands, Okinawa, was of particular interest to the Allied forces as it was believed that it would make a perfect base from which to launch a full-scale land invasion on the rest of Japan. In order to attempt to prevent this from happening, the Japanese military were prepared to use any available resource at their disposal. To that end, thousands of extra troops were dispatched to Okinawa and, once they arrived, they immediately seized control of the schools.
Standard education hours were drastically cut and eventually stopped altogether. Instead, children were taught skills that would make them useful to the war effort. Whilst the girls were given basic medical training, something that we have covered in a previous Into the Shadows post, the boys were taught things like the logistics of supply running, the laying of communications cables and of course how to fight. Today we will take a look at just how terrible military life was for these boys, some of the horrific things that they were ordered to do, and the fatal consequences for those who refused.
Theoretically, joining the Tekketsu Kinnotai or “Iron and Blood Imperial Core” was completely voluntary. However, in reality these boys had very little choice. The Japanese army had instructed the schools to order their students to enrol. Anybody who refused would be threatened and intimidated until they changed their minds or, if they continued to refuse, they would be branded as traitors to the emperor and driven from the schools often at gunpoint.
Although most of these young people were underage and could not join up without the consent of their parents, the army would often get around this problem by forging the necessary paperwork. Although the minimum age for signing up was 14, there are many records of boys as young as 12 being forced to join up and subsequently dying in battle.
After all the formalities had been attended to, training would begin. The boys were taught such skills as how to use a hand grenade or a rifle, and sharpening bamboo to make spears which they would then use to stab images of American soldiers or politicians. One of the survivors recalled in later life that he and his fellow students had to use one of these spears to stab a straw figure every morning before they were allowed to enter the school. By the time the allied forces landed on Okinawa on April 1, 1945, at least 1,787 of these young boys had been sent to swell the ranks of the Japanese army.
Unlike their female counterparts, who had been deceived into believing that they would be working in Red Cross protected hospital environments, only to find themselves working in disease infested caves, these boys were under no illusion as to why they were there. From the very beginning, they had been brainwashed into believing that there was no greater honour than to die for one’s emperor and no greater disgrace than to surrender or be captured – and the majority of them believed this.
One of the survivors, Shoken Yoza, would later say that “We thought Japan, as a divine country, would win,”. Armed with this surety, he had no qualms with filling out paperwork on behalf of the army so that a school friend, two years younger than him, could be conscripted. It was not until after the war that he learned his young friend had been killed in battle and he still lives with the guilt of what he did to this very day:
“Among my classmates who were also ordered to submit military applications on behalf of younger students, some of them just told the authorities that no-one was home and got rid of the application forms. Why couldn’t I do the same thing?”
Yoza was fortunate enough to be one of 19 boys who were discharged by the company commander who claimed that there was a food shortage. He said that, because of this, he would allow any boy who was not completely confident in his abilities to go home. According to Yoza, not a single student raised his hand so the commander selected boys himself. “I was only 152 centimetres tall. I think he felt a paternalistic responsibility toward us,” said Yoza.
This display of humanity was fairly unusual for the time. It was not uncommon for boys who displayed too much fear or refused to obey orders to be shot without question.
Before this point, Yoza had fully resigned himself to the fact that he would most likely die. In a letter that he wrote to his parents he says: “I have lived just a short time, but thank you for everything. Please take care of yourselves.”
Yoza would eventually be reunited with his father, and they would surrender together before becoming prisoners of war. He now believes that he was destined to survive the battle so that he could tell the truth of what happened to future generations.
Another example of just how indoctrinated these young boys were is taken from diary found by an American soldier. One of the entries reads simply “They will not take my spirit! I will die for the emperor without a moment’s hesitation”. However, many of the survivors would, in later years, come to realise just how atrociously they and their fellow school friends had been treated. One survivor said: “I felt empowered because I was told I was doing this to protect the Emperor of Japan. What I didn’t know, at that time, was that the Emperor of Japan had no plans to protect me”.
As the allied forces continued to advance, the Japanese military became more and more desperate, and this led to many of these young boys being forced to sacrifice their lives in the name of the emperor. One story tells of a request going out for volunteers to strap on explosives, make their way to American tanks and then blow themselves up in an attempt to destroy them.
Amongst these volunteers were several of the Tekketsu Kinnotai and the story goes on to describe how one of these boys, aged 14, would meet his fate: “He just stood there as if in a daze as two soldiers strapped explosives to his body. When the order was given, he and several others started to run towards the tank. Two of the others were shot before they could reach it but miraculously, he survived. He turned back, gave a little half wave and then he was gone.” Apparently, such volunteers were often promised that their names would be immortalised in history due to their loyalty and bravery, but in reality, most names were simply forgotten by anybody apart from their families after the war.
As the Japanese army became more desperate, it was not just the boys that were officially signed up that were put at risk. There are several accounts of civilians who were hiding in caves being flushed out by the army, given grenades and being ordered to take part in raiding parties.
One boy, also 14, tells of how soldiers came across him and some of his friends, taught them how to use a grenade and then marched them into battle. Fortunately for this group, they were spotted by an army Lieutenant who stopped them, took away their grenades and sent them home saying that “There was no such order to use children in combat. War did not involve children.”
Sadly, many others were not so lucky. There are also several reports of civilians being forced at gunpoint to walk into the battlefield so that, when they were shot, it would give away the enemy location to the soldiers.
Ishikawa Eiki’s accounts from the battle tell us about some of the conditions that the boys had to endure. As part of a small group assigned to cooking duties for the soldiers, he spent a large amount of the time digging potatoes out of the ground whilst artillery shells fell all around him. Two weeks into the battle, two of his group were killed by an exploding shell and at this point he began to believe that at some not too distant point in the future, he may suffer the same fate. He and the other students were only given salted cabbage to eat, which became infested with lice and they could only drink dirty water from the ground.
Before going to sleep every night in an underground bunker, Eiki remembered wishing for three things:
“1. To drink a clean glass of water.
2. to sleep stretched out on a tatami mat.
3. To die without pain.”
One day, before an engagement with US forces, he was given two grenades. One to throw at the enemy and one for himself. Eiki would only survive due to the fact that he hid during the battle and, in spite of everything he had been told about American soldiers brutally torturing and murdering their captives, electing to throw his grenades away and surrender.
It was these lies with regards to the American’s treatment of prisoners of war that led to perhaps some of the most distressing and unnecessary deaths of the entire battle. There are stories of soldiers being so desperate not to be discovered that they would kill crying children who were unfortunate enough to be hiding in the same caves. There is at least one story of a mother killing her baby girl before the Americans could get to her, only to find, that when they did, they treated her humanely and provided her with water, cigarettes, and medical treatment. And, perhaps worst of all, there are stories of entire villages committing mass suicide just to avoid capture. One survivor of just such a catastrophic event said: “after the mayor called out long live the emperor there was the sound of exploding grenades from all directions. I can still remember the screams of the dying.”
In the midst of all this tragedy, we were able to find one positive account and that is the story of Higa Takejiro.
Takejiro was part of a United States Army unit of Japanese Americans who served as translators. Due to his ability to speak both Japanese and the specific dialect of Okinawa, he was able to win the trust of many soldiers and civilians who were still hiding out in caves after the battle. He would go around to these caves and call out to the people hiding inside, assuring them that it was safe to surrender. In total, it is believed that he was able to save the lives of approximately 3,000 people who otherwise may have suffered death by suicide or death by phosphorous grenade, a common weapon used by the Americans to clear pockets of resistance concealed within the cave networks.
Many people would later say that they had been ready to kill themselves before Takejiro persuaded them to surrender. Takejiro would later publicly state how proud he was to have not fired a single shot during the entire battle. Sadly, even this tremendous achievement could do nothing to save the estimated 816 members of the Tekketsu Kinnotai – the schoolboys who were killed during the battle for Okinawa.